What a married woman learned from visiting churches alone

Recently, I realized something that I’d known intellectually but had never experienced:

It’s hard to visit a church as a single Christian.

I got married straight out of college. I’d always visited churches with my parents or my friends or my husband and kids, never alone. We’d settled into one church for a year before we decided it was time to move on. But to maintain continuity for the kids, my husband was taking them to the old church until I found a suitable congregation. So I was visiting churches. Alone.

Solo. One. Alone.

And I definitely felt alone, sitting in the pew (or chair), watching couples and families and groups of friends wander into the sanctuary/worship center/gathering place. Aside from one teeny-tiny church and the slightly bigger one we chose, I was ignored. Very little eye contact, few smiles, no interest or acknowledgement of me as a person.

Forget the word alone. Try lonely. It stinks.

“Duh.”
—my husband’s response to my profound realization that being single in church is hard

He was 31 when we got married, so he’d spent plenty of time in the church singles group and knew how singles were treated at our old church. I’d been a part of the group, too, albeit as a college student who lived with my parents.

They were “separate but equal” church members. (As we all know, separate but equal is anything but equal.) It wasn’t official, and no one in authority would’ve acknowledged this, but it was still there.

They held Sunday school at a building down the street, off the main church campus. They had their own Bible study, their own church parties, and there wasn’t a lot of mixing between singles and marrieds. The ladies’ Bible studies were rarely held at a time that accommodated working women.

Unless they were otherwise visible, like soloists, a lot of other members didn’t know them. I knew a lot of young couples because I taught 3- and 4- year old Sunday school, and if I’d mentioned one particular single to one of the parents, I’d get a blank stare. “I don’t know them.”

And if I mentioned one of the couples to a single, I’d get the same response. “I don’t know them.”

Wait a minute, I’d yell mentally. You’re roughly the same age, you’ve gone to the same church for ten years, you sing the same worship songs and listen to the same sermons and sit in the same sanctuary. And you’ve never heard of each other? The church isn’t that big, for crying out loud!

Then there’s the general attitude toward singles. I’ve met more than one person who seems wary, almost suspicious of non-married Christians:

What’s wrong with those singles? Because, obviously, if they were normal, they’d be married. There must be something wrong!

(At which I roll my eyes or gag or flip my hair over my shoulder in my best valley girl style and say, “Like, whatever.”)

But the more prevailing problem, I think, is that churches are geared toward married people with kids, and so every program, every conference, everything revolves around the twin topics of marriage and parenting.

Many sermon illustrations use parent/marriage topics, too. (I’d guess that’s because most ministers are married and they draw on their life experiences for illustrations.)

Also, at least where I live, many women are too accustomed to discussing marriage and/or children and cannot talk about any other topic, which alienates those who don’t relate to those experiences.

Several years ago, I ran into a woman I knew from the singles group. She told me a sad story about a mutual acquaintance (another forty-ish single woman) who’d attended a women’s dinner at our church. The friend found that the other women seemed uncomfortable with her presence, as if they didn’t know how to talk to her. My friend said, “It’s not that difficult! Surely they remember being single.”

I didn’t have a reply. But now, after eleven years of hanging around other moms, I think I do. These women really didn’t remember being single. They’d been married for so long that their single years were a distant memory. (That is, if they’d ever been single beyond young adulthood. Being single at 20 is different from being single at 30 or 50.)

For many of these women, their married life had revolved around their children. Heck, their entire world revolved around the kids. (I’ve met women who can’t talk about anything other than their children. Literally. I’d raise a different topic and watch their eyes go blank.)

When many women meet another woman, their standard opening line is child-related. Not always, but often. It’s a short cut, the obvious topic. I’ve done it myself. And when faced with someone who doesn’t have that in common with me, small talk can seem daunting. What do we have in common?

Well, for Christians, the answer is Jesus. Duh.

So there’s no excuse for ignoring people because of their marital status.

Or treating them as defective, second class Christians.

Or ignoring their needs.

No excuse.

Overall, churches are uncertain how to handle people who don’t fit their usual demographic of married with kids. I’ve seen this; I’ve read about it; I’ve heard complaints and comments. I just hadn’t experienced it.

I still haven’t, of course, not really. When asked, I always explain the solo-church-visiting situation: yes, I am married, yes, I have children, but we don’t want to drag them from church to church to church, so he’s going to one church and— blah, blah, blah. I take refuge behind my wedding band. I take comfort in knowing there are people waiting at home for me. But lots of other people can’t do that.

Here’s what I want and need to know. What can a church do to make single Christians feel welcome as visitors? What can I personally do to help singles feel welcome and cared about?

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18 thoughts on “What a married woman learned from visiting churches alone

  1. “What do you do for a living?”

    “Do you have any children?”

    “Where are you from?”

    These are all short-cuts, and I have to say they are also lazy in some ways. I don’t have an answer for getting beyond these, though. It’s touch to find common ground without these lazy short-cuts, and jumping straight to “So, tell me what God’s been doing in your life!” takes guts in our culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Tim. We use those short cuts because we’re lazy and possibly only interested in filling the awkward silence when we’ve just met someone. Often, we have no intention of remembering whatever we’re told. At various points in my life, I’ve had people introduce themselves three or more times, prefacing it with, “I haven’t met you, I’m so-and-so.” Um, actually, I had met them before and remembered them quite well; they hadn’t bothered to remember me. Or the person who, upon finding out that my family members lived in a particular area of the country, asked me, “So do you see them often?” Three times, in one conversation. I guess he wasn’t paying attention to my reply. Either that, or he had short term memory loss really badly, like that fish in Nemo.

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  2. Laura, thanks for this post! As a married woman without children, I often relate to the struggles and frustrations singles experience in the church. “Overall, churches are uncertain how to handle people who don’t fit their usual demographic of married with kids.” – Yes, very true. And it is a growing concern that the church is failing this way because more and more people don’t fit the traditional sociological norm for various reasons.

    To ramble a bit…people often make friends and assimilate through their children. When you drop your kids at the Sunday school, and your kids make friends with other kids – you naturally meet the adult teachers and other parents. Without children, you lack this significant way to meet others! Those “without children” can be a varied bunch – working professional singles, married without kids, empty nesters, those who don’t have custody of their children, etc.

    People need to get better at reaching out and drawing in those who don’t fit the married with kids paradigm. How? Have eyes to see them. Engage them in conversation. Don’t mention their singleness or lack of kids!! Draw them in. Include them.

    I remember a married couple with several kids inviting us to lunch after church. They really wanted to be able to chat with us, so they had their kids go home separately. Their oldest child was a teen who drove so they were able to take the younger ones home. I still remember this thoughtfulness and consideration of us. Of course, we certainly do NOT expect that all the time!! And it is not that those without kids don’t ever want to be around kids!

    But when kids are ALWAYS present, this can create challenges for the person/couple without kids. When my spouse and I invite over a couple with kids, very little genuine discussion or fellowship occurs. Our non-existent kids can’t play with their kids, and we don’t have toys or kid things. Bored kids tend to misbehave or be in your face. And the evening pretty much becomes focused on the kids and very little adult conversation goes on. When the night ends, my spouse and I are still lonely. And I don’t think the couple enjoyed themselves all that much either – having to police their kids the whole night! But we’ve also learned that casually suggesting a babysitter when you invite them over is NOT well received. Sigh. Wouldn’t parents like an adult night from time to time? Apparently not?

    Just sharing my very rambling thoughts. Thanks for listening!! And thanks again for your post that I obviously appreciated… : )

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    1. Thank you for adding your thoughts, Laura.

      I, for one, would LOVE to have a babysitter keep the kids while my husband and I went to another couple’s house and visited! Sometimes I’d really like a break from parenthood and “having” to talk about the kids (or listening to other people talk about their brilliant little one. Honestly, most children aren’t that interesting as a conversation topic; it’s not like I’m raising a hybrid of Einstein/Michelangelo/Michael Jordan/Bill Cosby or something, and neither is the other parent. Once, before I had kids, I was stuck at a ladies’ night out with several women who a) wouldn’t talk to me, and b) only wanted to talk about their children’s sinus infections. Sinus infections–at dinner!! Gross. I desperately wanted to have a pet–preferably some exotic, rather disgusting pet–to inflict on them, along the lines of, “Oh, my goodness, I know just what you mean! My pet boa got the most awful stomach bug last week, poor baby, and oh, he made such a mess all over the living room carpet! Regurgitated mouse is SO difficult to get out of the rug, so I totally sympathize with you!!!!” They might have shut up then. But I digress.)

      Anyway, I love your suggestions. Simply paying attention to another person’s needs and being considerate of their life circumstances goes a long way toward making others feel welcome and unlonely. 🙂

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  3. i have learned to let go of expectations of people in a church setting. I make the first move if no one has spoken to me. I can usually pick up on what they’re like; serious, fun,, jolly,, quiet etc. With men I have a habit of making a light-hearted joke (that gets them 99% of the time) and with women I just give my name and let them know I’m new to the church.

    I have been single for 23 years now (my decision) and find that when I say I want to remain single,the response is usually, “for now” and I respond with, “I am content,” which usually satisfies people. I have found that married people sometimes are uncomfortable introducing themselves because they don’t want to appear to be flirting.

    I am going to a church where several people approached the first time I came. Also, coffee and snacks before or after church serves well as a safe place to approach people to start a conversation.

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    1. You have great comments here.

      I know that I’ve hesitated to introduce myself to single men at church unless my husband is with me, and it’s for the very reason you stated: I don’t want to appear to be flirting or to make the man uncomfortable. Where I live, many, many of the men are engineers and rather introverted, so small talk doesn’t come easily to them. It also doesn’t come easily for me, and it feels very awkward, even with coffee and snack in hand.

      I’ve tried to let go of my expectations of church members, and I’m willing to make the first move, but often, the other person will NOT respond. It’s, “Oh, hi, glad you’re here,” and they turn aside to talk to one of their friends. Even if I ask a question, the women might not respond with anything more than a single word or phrase before moving on to their “real friends.” I’ve encountered this kind of non-response often in the churches we/I have visited, as well as at a church where I was a member for four years, and I find it bizarre (not to mention rude). And when it’s coming at me from all sides and I’m stuck in a situation where NO ONE will talk to me, it’s awful.

      Thankfully, we have found a church where we think we fit. But, man, it was a long journey!

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  4. Also, comments about spiritual matters I give time and space for because I have strong beliefs and I don’t want to offend anyone.

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  5. (I just saw the date, sorry for being a little late to the game here ….)

    I liked your last question – what can I personally do ?

    “Ask me to come sit with you in church.”

    I’m not single, but my husband was a singles pastor. We heard this request often.

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    1. Better late than never! I like this idea, Maureen. I hate to see people sitting by themselves at church.

      I suspect that a very, very small minority actually want to be left alone, or at least not have to endure small talk before/after the service, but maybe they still want to sit by someone else quiet. Probably most people would rather have someone else to sit with. I know I would!

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  6. I realize that this post is over a year old but something in the comments section has been gnawing at me for quite some time. I am a twenty-something man who attends church alone and as the post eloquently described it can be difficult. Like most churches mine has more female attendees then male (probably 3:2) and many attend without their husbands. While I can’t say for ceartin, I feel that many women use the I-don’t-want-him-to-think-I’m-flirting excuse as a convenient way to justify never having to talk to and befriend their fellow male parishioners and that stinks. I realize that some men have the bad habit of misinterpreting innocuous acts of female kindness as flirting and that must be frustrating for women. These men, however, are in the minority. Sometimes church can feel reminiscint of the sixth grade dance, all the boys standing on one side of the gym and the girls standing on the opposite side until the chaperones have to begin encouraging the kids to socialize. Christian women, if you see a man at church who is new or sitting by himself, I ask that you take a moment to say hello, initiate a conversation and maybe even sit next to him (even if this means sacrificing some time from your normal circle of Sunday friends). I can say from experience that these small acts can make huge impacts.

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    1. Jacob, thank you for sharing your experience! I’ve been guilty of not speaking to male visitors because I’m afraid it will be misunderstood; often, I’ve waited for some other person (my husband, the pastor, etc.) to greet the solo male first. One memory from a few years ago still bugs me. I noticed a single male, roughly my age, who was apparently visiting our church. I watched as other people passed by him and waited, hoping that someone would talk to him; I just didn’t know how ME talking to him (especially without my husband by my side) would be perceived by either him or others. No one greeted this man until after the service. I never saw him again. I’ve regretted that incident many times. Since then, I’ve come to realize that if other people have an issue with a female being friendly to a male, then that’s THEIR problem. I need to make others welcome, regardless of gender! Thanks again for sharing.

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  7. I am a fan of your blog and I thought this was a well written post. I tried to be very particular with my choice of words, I didn’t want my first comment to have a “finger-wagging” tone.

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